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May 6th, 2011

The Future of Food

Washington Post Live assembled an all-star conference entitled “The Future of Food” Wednesday at Georgetown University. Speakers included Macarthur Fellow and urban farmer Will Allen, poet/farmer Wendell Barry, professor Marion Nestle and other advocates, government officials and industry representatives. Highlights included a keynote by none other than Prince Charles of Wales (House of Windsor), a passionate advocate of organic farming, who argued that farming systems should mirror “the miraculous ingenuity of nature.”

Not to be outdone by a representative of the British monarchy, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made a surprise visit and enthusiastically covered many positive topics in agriculture including supporting local food systems, feeding hungry children, and ensuring small and mid-scale farmers can make a living from farming. In the question and answer period, however, conference participants unleashed criticisms that USDA does too little to address industrial agriculture.

One participant tackled the recent approval of GE alfalfa and the lack of labeling of genetically-engineered foods, leading to a heated exchange in which Secretary Vilsack defended himself as doing what the law requires and called upon activists to engage in civil discourse with industry. The Secretary pointed out that organizations on both sides of the GE alfalfa issue have sued him. Yet, he would prefer these issues not be decided in a courtroom and would like to revive a GE advisory group. He compared the two sides to “two sons” that he must respect and satisfy. The questioner’s curt reply: “One of your sons is a bully.”

Another participant urged Secretary Vilsack to address the common use of antibiotics for growth promotion in otherwise healthy livestock. The Secretary echoed comments made earlier by FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, Michael Taylor, in describing USDA’s efforts to support “judicious use” of medically-necessary antibiotics in agriculture. When pressed as to why this practice has not been banned, Secretary Vilsack asked, perhaps rhetorically, “How do you legislate that?” Several audience members hollered, “They’ve banned it in Denmark,” to which Secretary Vilsack replied, “Denmark is a lot smaller than the U.S.” While Denmark may be a small country, USDA reports that Denmark is one of our main competitors for pork exports, so their practices should not be so easily dismissed.

Looming in all of these discussions was the upcoming Farm Bill and how the budget cuts will impact opportunities for change. Secretary Vilsack fully acknowledged the challenge of making do with less money, with putting limits on the amount of subsidies any one farmer can receive mentioned as one possible cut.

For more coverage of the event, see  http://washingtonpostlive.com/conferences/food.

-Sarah Borron

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